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Dance and theater combine in BYU prof's innovative 'You'

Published February 4, 2014 9:15 am

Performance • Dance and theater combine in BYU professor's innovative "You."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Graham Brown, founder of Salt Lake's dance improvisation company Movement Forum, left town in 2010 to pursue a master's degree in dance at the University of Maryland, few would have guessed his return three years later would be as an assistant professor of dance at Brigham Young University. Perhaps more surprising is that his hire puts BYU in the spotlight as a cultural innovator with Brown's evening-length work titled "You."

Brown is auditioning professional dancers to lead the student-assisted work, now in its third incarnation that peers into the lives of a contemporary community. The pop music score of "You" will be replaced by an original composition. And this time around, Brown said he is shooting for "a clearer distinction of the characters and a more coherent narrative."

During Brown's education in Maryland, his interests shifted from dance improvisation to structured dance theater. His evolving style uses theatrical tools such as storyboarding (graphic visualization used by directors and playwrights), costume and set designers, and a dramaturg to clarify scenes. He even took a playwriting class while working on the narrative for "You."

Brown grew up dancing in Maryland and moved to Utah after high school.

"I moved back east with the intent to raise my family there. We would have stayed there had I not gotten the job at BYU," Brown said. "When the BYU position came up, I felt the experience I gained on the East Coast would be reciprocally beneficial. Much of the new work that Utah audiences see from nationally recognized innovative choreographers is set on local companies by those choreographers rather than on his or her own company. So the perspective by local audiences of developing choreographers' work is different than audiences in major dance centers. But I did want to work here in Utah because the pool of talent is exceptional."

Patrik Widrig, co-founder of the nationally acclaimed PearsonWidrig DanceTheater, a company Brown has danced with for seven years now, said he believes what "propelled Graham to develop from a spontaneously spectacular improviser into a splendidly specific choreographer seems to have been a conscious choice upon entering grad school in 2010. He excelled at it from the get-go and was incredibly prolific."

Widrig and his co-founder, Sara Pearson, were doing a choreographic residency at the University of Utah in 2004 when Brown, then an undergraduate, caught their eye. Their invitation to join the company was instrumental in his decision to pursue his advanced degree in Maryland, where PearsonWidrig DanceTheater is based. He has performed with the company throughout the United States and in Chile. Brown will tour to the Open Look Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, this coming June, and to Switzerland in 2015.

"Graham's consistent fearlessness and limitless energy while improvising are immediately apparent to anyone who sees him dance," Pearson said. "He brings these same qualities to his choreography and his teaching."

Brown and his dancer-wife, Erin Lehua Brown, were married and started a family while both were still undergraduate modern-dance majors at the University of Utah. After graduation and the birth of their second child, Lehua Brown supported the family financially as a member of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Graham became a stay-at-home dad with a blossoming freelance career.

Once Brown began the master's program in Maryland, the couple switched roles. While Lehua Brown will return to the stage in the near future, Brown said, "It's hard to carve out the time for both of us to work professionally because I have a very demanding job." They also have four children: a newborn, a 1-year-old and two grade-school-age children.

The third manifestation of "You" includes the addition of an original score by veteran dance composer Michael Wall. This fall, Wall and his wife, Meghan Durham, were hired as dance faculty at the U. Wall often works with choreographers remotely through the dance music website soundFORMovement.com.

Wall said he is eager to get started on the composition because he likes "Graham's move-forward approach" and because this is a local project. He said he plans to play the score live at each performance. "I love playing live, and this score seems like it will be a fun one."

Repertory Dance Theater is providing Brown with a performance umbrella through its LINK series. But the actual funding to develop the piece is made possible by two BYU grants that encourage partnerships between undergraduates and faculty and other out-of-the classroom mentoring opportunities.

Roger Sorensen, associate dean in the College of Fine Arts and Communications at BYU and faculty in the theater department, worked closely with Brown in mounting "You" for BYU's dancEnsemble production in December. "You," with the professional dancers added, will be part of Repertory Dance Theatre's Link Series next January.

"The grant came from BYU, which means there is some real support here for this kind of dance," Sorensen said. "We hired Graham knowing he was developing an interdisciplinary approach, bringing theatrical elements into his dance to tell story through physical movement in a theatrical setting."

Sorensen, who has used his acting skills to coach performance to ballet majors, explained that BYU's artistic philosophy is based in interdisciplinary work.

"We want to find ways to help students solve artistic problems and then apply that to a real-life setting," he said. "We live in a messy world, and Graham's piece looks at life and asks questions about how we address life through art."

Although Brown is now the dance-clad version of the tweed-jacket-wearing professor, colleagues from his Movement Forum and stay-at-home-dad days recall him running into rehearsal with Ziploc bags of Cheerios in his sweat pants. Even now, Brown's family life is embedded in his choreography and he is surprisingly open about ways it informs his work.

Brown, for example, shared with his students a personal story behind the sustained hug that ends the hourlong work. He said it was inspired by a serious argument with his wife not that long ago. When they made up, Brown said they shared a hug that was deep and meaningful. Lehua Brown would not let go.

"I love my family so much and I love my work as an artist," he said. "It's so hard to give enough to either one. Sometimes it's not about keeping all the balls in the air, it's about not letting any one of them hit the ground for too long." —

Audition notice for 'You'

Graham Brown is seeking three mature, professional lead performers (male and female) for a season at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, presented through Repertory Dance Theatre's Link Series Jan. 29-31, 2015.

Auditions will be held on the following dates:

Salt Lake City • Feb. 8, 2-6 p.m., Rose Wagner PAC, RDT West studio, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Provo • Feb. 15, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Brigham Young University, Richards Building, studio 185, Provo.

To apply • Email a headshot and one-page résumé to graham@grahambrown.org and indicate which audition you will attend.

More information • Visit grahambrown.org.